In the Face of Brutality, the Power of Stories

by Audrey Fisch

What’s worse: waking up in the morning and reading yet another news story of the brutal separation of families and treatment of refugees in and by the United States or not reading one of those stories and wondering whether we are becoming inured to this issue? As the child of a refugee, I feel particularly devastated by the normalization of our current policy towards refugees. Moreover, I feel, I think like many, impotent.

But then I remember the power of stories and my unique position as a teacher of literature.

We know the power of stories. Information generally and stories in particular have a unique ability to reshape hearts and minds. If they weren’t so powerful, then so much energy would not have been and continue to be expended to silence stories.

Think, for example, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the ways in which Stowe’s novel, building on the genre of African-American slave narratives, brought slavery into the U.S. consciousness. The abolitionist movement is a complex story of social change, but there’s no question that Stowe capitalized on and in turn mobilized public opinion. Her story had immense cultural power. The prohibition of certain texts (like her novel) and of literacy for slaves in the American South make clear that people intent on maintaining the status quo knew well (and continue to recognize) the power of stories to change the world.

So, in my sometimes despair about the current refugee crisis, I have turned to stories for solace and inspiration. And I look forward to the opportunities I will have to bring these and other texts into the classroom to share with my students. Here are a few that I recommend to others who are gifted with the opportunity to bring stories to young readers.

marwanTwo picture books stand out for me (and remind me of how powerful picture books can be for readers of all ages). Marwan’s Journey, by Patricia de Arias, with evocative illustrations by Laura Borras, tells the story of Marwan, who walks from his home across the desert with a photograph of his mother, who comes to him only in his dreams. Marwan’s story is brutal in its lack of detail and richly suggestive in its language. Marwan is one of many; “Hundreds of people, thousands of feet” make this journey on foot. He is one in a “line of humans like ants crossing the desert.” One particularly dark and poignant illustration depicts tanks: the night “they came” and the “darkness grew colder, deeper, darker.”

birdsMy Beautiful Birds, by Suzanne Del Rizzo who created the amazing illustrations in polymer clay and acrylic, tells the story of Sami from Syria. Like Marwan, Sami walks (all day and all night) from his home, “`Just like follow-the-leader,’ says Father.” Sami’s home has been destroyed, but his father insists that Sami’s pigeons, his beautiful birds, “escaped too.” In a refugee camp, Sami tries to paint his birds, but he struggles to do so, and Del Rizzo offers readers a picture of his work: a bird, covered in black paint, “black smears edge to edge, swallowing everything underneath.” Sami begins to find his birds, however, in the clouds and in his dreams. He builds new nests and paints birds on kites.

The balance between despair and hope is always tricky in these stories. It’s not just that these texts are written for young people. All writers want and need us to connect with their subjects, yet the brutality of the reality these people face is unfathomable, unspeakable, unable to be fully rendered. Always on the edges of these stories is the ugly unsaid: people are not ants, although the world is treating them that way; Sami’s birds no doubt failed to escape, like so many people in Syria.

longwaygoneGrappling with this issue of how to represent the unrepresentable horrors of war, Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, published in 2007 about his experiences as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, seems incredibly powerful. At the end of his book, Beah tells of his experience at a rehabilitation center where he struggles to reconcile his horrific experiences and actions in the war with the repeated line: “None of what happened was your fault. You were just a little boy.” At one point, Beah dreams of the violence, feeling the pain of his victims, and seeing himself covered in blood. In the dream, he then sees his family, “all smiling as if nothing had happened,” as if they “didn’t seem to notice that I was covered with blood.” Beah struggles to reconcile himself and his reality: Can he really be a faultless little boy, with a smiling family, given all that has happened, given all the blood?

And Beah’s reality refuses to stay in the past. War overtakes him again, and, this time, Beah decides he must flee, despairing that “I couldn’t return to my previous life. I didn’t think I could make it out alive this time.” Yet some of his friends from rehabilitation rejoin the army. Beah somehow seizes on a nearly hopeless attempt to find refuge; his peers, children who were manipulated into serving as the cruelest of killers, see no option but to return to war.

refugeeThe cycle of violence, and the recurring plight of the refugee, is the center of Alan Gratz’s 2017 and wildly popular Refugee, a text that is accessible to young readers, despite its sometimes graphic depictions of the experiences of his three refugee protagonists and their families: Josef, a Jewish boy from Nazi Germany whose family manages to find a temporary escape on board the St. Louis, bound for Cuba; Isabel, a Cuban girl whose family attempts to make its way by raft to the safety of Florida; and Mahmoud, a Syrian boy whose family hopes to make its way across the Mediterranean and then to a future in Europe.

From different time periods, political contexts, and geographical areas, all of Gratz’s refugees find themselves in the water, landless humans, struggling to find safety. The brilliance and poignancy of the novel is how Gratz uses the sea to underscore the similarities of their journeys, while never erasing the differences of their plights. Moreover, in a closing that connects these three families (I won’t spoil it), Gratz reminds us of how linked we all are, across place, across history, across time.

insideoutThis connectedness resonated strongly for me in my favorite of the texts I read, Inside Out & Back Again, by Thanhha Lai. In magnificent free verse, Lai tells the story, inspired by her own experiences and memories, of Ha, whose family manages to flee Vietnam and ends up in Alabama. Ha is a feisty, furious girl, and her story is full of both brutality and kindness. Her tales of school in Alabama reminded me so much of my mother. Lai writes, “So this is what dumb feel like,” when Ha is placed in a class to learn the ABCs and numbers, “unable to explain I already learned fractions and how to purify river water.” Ha’s acquisition of English cruelly enables her to understand the taunts of her peers and to “wish I could go back to not understanding.”

This was my mother’s experience in New York City. Rebellious, angry, and no doubt traumatized, my mother arrived in the United States and started a new life. She, like many Holocaust survivors, spoke little about her experiences. But she did tell me how she hated when the American children would call her stupid, a word she understood because of the year she spent as a refugee in Italy (the Italian word for stupid is stupido/a), as part of her journey out of Nazi Austria.

As all of us struggle to grapple with our complicity in the U.S. government’s systemic brutality towards refugees, I relish my role as an educator and my ability to transform my mother’s shame and silence by sharing the powerful stories and voices of other refugees.

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

In the Face of Brutality, the Power of Stories

NJCTE President reflects on the 2018 Student Writing Contest Awards

Audrey headshot
NJCTE President Audrey Fisch

by Audrey Fisch

Thanks in particular to the gracious hospitality of Sister Percylee Hart, Principal, and NJCTE former board member and teacher, Julius Gottilla, NJCTE was able to hold our annual Writing Context Awards Reception at Union Catholic High School on April 24, 2018. As in many years past, teachers, students, family, and friends gathered to celebrate the poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction prose of some of New Jersey’s finest young writers.

The writing contest is coordinated by NJCTE board member Michele Marotta, with the help of curators Kathy Webber (short story), Karen Davidson (poetry), and Kristen Angelo (personal essay). This year, NJCTE piloted our first middle school contest, coordinated by Gina Lorusso. Many, many judges volunteer their time and energy reading submissions, a task made pleasurable by the wonderful submissions we always receive. Indeed, the contest is the success that it is also because of the support of many teachers in classrooms across the state who guide and develop the young writers in their classrooms and schools.

NJCTE board and judges
Michele Marotta, NJCTE Writing Contest Director; Beth Ann Bates, Judge Liaison; Audrey Fisch, judge; Patricia Schall, judge, and Julius Gottilla, host.

See the list of winners and the sponsoring teachers and schools here.

The awards ceremony is a particular joy because of Julius’ work with Union Catholic HS’s Forensics Team. These young people, Molly Bonner, Cameron Guanlao, Audrey Davis, and Nick Mehno, took time out of their busy schedules to prepare and perform selections from the winning entries in each genre. Their spirited and entertaining renditions allowed the student writing to come alive for a grateful and rapt audience. (We will also be publishing, with permission, some of the winning entries from the contest, so stay tuned for those on this blog and on our NJCTE website.)

garcia 3The ceremony always includes an engaging and inspirational keynote speaker, and this year Roberto Carlos Garcia, was no exception. He spoke about his passion for writing, his journey as both a student and a professional writer, and his confidence about the difference writing makes in our world. I can think of no better message for the next generation of New Jersey’s writers of poetry and prose.

Garcia read to us from his collection of poetry, Melancolia. He also spoke to the young writers in the audience about his experience as the publisher and founder of Get Fresh Books. Perhaps one day Garcia will find himself publishing the work of one of the young people he inspired with his presentation. I know that everyone at the celebration was touched by Garcia’s investment in bringing new voices to the public and in using writing as a vehicle for bringing about positive change and social justice.

If you have never encouraged your students to submit work to the contest, please consider this opportunity to help your young writers find greater recognition for their voices. We typically announce our prompts in the late summer (check the website –, and submissions are usually due December 17. We hope to include at our fall conference a panel of teachers whose students have had success in the contest; they will share tips, tricks, suggestions, and activities. (If you are one of those teachers, please submit a response to our Call for Presentations —

Finally, if you want to support the writing contest as a judge, or wish to participate as curator or writing contest committee member, we welcome your contribution.  This year we are reaching for the writing stars in urban districts and are seeking an assistant writing contest director to help us make this ambitious expansion. Reach out to Michele Marotta at

Photos by Susan Reese

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

NJCTE President reflects on the 2018 Student Writing Contest Awards

The importance of teaching students to read against canonical texts like Mockingbird

by Audrey Fisch and Susan Chenelle (originally posted on our blog, Using Informational Text to Teach Literature)

Periodically, on NCTE’s Connected Community, in our hallways, at conferences, and sometimes in our classrooms, we have one persistent and difficult conversation. How do we balance teaching canonical literature on the one hand and offering our students, on the other hand, what Latrise Johnson describes as “texts that include diverse characters but also . . . are reflective of students’ rich and complex histories”? This debate seems to surface, in particular, around To Kill a Mockingbird. Most recently, Will Menarndt argues in “Forget Atticus” that we should stop teaching TKAM.

Mockingbird has a long history of being lauded; Oprah has called it “our national book” and recent research suggests that many (white) teachers use TKAM to address multicultural issues, particularly race and racism (Macaluso 280). Depending on how that work is done with TKAM, particularly if we are spending the majority of our time highlighting the “obvious and overt racism” (Macaluso 282) in Harper Lee’s novel, we may be in danger of telling what Chimamanda Adichie warns against: the single story. Obvious and overt racism have been and remain only part of the complex story of racism. Students need to deepen their understanding of the institutional and structural racism that pervades Maycomb – in its housing, schools, and employment opportunities. The issues that Tom Robinson encounters with Maycomb’s justice system, like the lynch mob, are just the tip of the iceberg.

TKAM can be taught fruitfully in relation to that broader story of racism, and many teachers, before and after the publication of Go Set a Watchman, were doing that important work: complicating and troubling the dominant narrative of Atticus as the white savior and Tom as the voiceless, crippled, black victim. Michael Macaluso offers a thoughtful example of that work in his discussion of the lynch mob scene at the jailhouse. Reading against TKAM, for Macaluso, offers students the opportunity to see Atticus’s racism, even in this moment of defense of Tom Robinson, as “evidence of how racism works through privilege . . . and how it is laced into institutional and cultural practices and behaviors” (285).

This practice of reading against the text, particularly when the text is a canonical staple and as such has been central to reifying our dominant ideologies, is what Carlin Borsheim-Black, Macaluso, and Robert Petrone call critical literacy pedagogy (CLP): an approach that “teaches students to read and write against texts and understand that language and texts are not neutral and always ideological” (123).

Using CLP to read TKAM, in other words, reveals a text that on the one hand offers an anti-racist message but on the other hand is bound up with and in concert with a fundamentally racist ideology. This may be what Borsheim-Black, Macaluso, and Petrone call a dissonant realization for students, but it’s an important pedagogical opportunity.

We need to continue to do the important work of welcoming different voices into our classroom and to be sure that our literary curricula change to reflect our current student body. And surely it’s time for us to leave behind the idea that TKAM is an ideal vehicle for a complete and comprehensive discussion of the vast and complex issues of multiculturalism, race, and racism today.

Still, we need to recognize the cultural capital of Harper Lee’s novel: it continues to be idolized and adored (Macaluso 286) in our broader culture. Teaching TKAM, using the CLP model to read both with and against this text, allows students to discover for themselves the ideological complexity of this American novel.

We offer our model of text clusters and companion texts (our series with Rowman and Littlefield) as a productive component of CLP. Reading excerpts from Haywood Patterson and Earl Conrad, two of the Scottsboro boys, about their experience with a lynch mob, students can see for themselves what’s left out of the near-lynching scene in TKAMLoving v. Virginia makes visible the legal and institutional racism that forces Dolphus Raymond’s to feign drunkenness in order to protect his mixed-race family. An interview with white women who grew up with black domestics in the 30s, particularly when paired with excerpts from an interview with Dorothy Bolden, an African-American woman who worked as a domestic in the 1930s South and founded the National Domestic Workers Union, can unpack and unsettle the representation of Calpurnia.

After all, what really matters is not whether our students can read TKAM as racist or anti-racist but whether we are preparing our students to be powerful and resistant readers of the many texts of our world, including those canonical texts that occupy positions of outsized ideological power.

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TedGlobal. July 2009, Lecture,
Borsheim-Black, Carlin, Macaluso, Michael, and Robert Petrone. “Critical Literature Pedagogy: Teaching Canonical Literature for Critical Literacy.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 58.2, Oct. 2014, pp. 123-133.
Johnson, Latrise. “Students Don’t Need Diverse Literature Just Because It’s Diverse.” NCTE, 12 April 2016,
Macaluso, Michael. “Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird Today: Coming to Terms With Race, Racism, and America’s Novel.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 61.3, Nov./Dec. 2017, pp. 279-287.
New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English
The importance of teaching students to read against canonical texts like Mockingbird


audreyNJCTE is excited to announce the election of Audrey Fisch as President.

Audrey serves as Professor of English at New Jersey City University where she has taught in both the English and Elementary and Secondary Education Departments for nearly twenty-five years. Until Fall 2017, she led the Secondary English Education Program as Coordinator. She also created, secured external funding for, and led the NJCU Teacher Training Program, placing NJCU students with an interest in education into long-term paid internships in schools where they serve as teaching assistants, tutors, and mentors for their younger peers.

Audrey has written and edited books about nineteenth-century literature and culture for Oxford, Cambridge and Helm publishers. She has also written extensively about pedagogy and education, including the book series, Using Informational Text, co-authored with NJCTE Board Member Susan Chenelle for Rowman and Littlefield. Susan and Audrey’s fourth and latest volume in the series, Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby, was just published in March 2018.

Audrey is thrilled to take the helm at NJCTE, following in the large footsteps of recent past presidents Susan Reese and Laura Nicosia. She hopes NJCTE will continue to fulfill its mission: “to offer a community of practices, research, and resources, providing access for diverse educators and students to create, collaborate, and lead in New Jersey and beyond.”

If you are interested in learning more about NJCTE, including our wonderful fall and spring conferences, our journal – New Jersey English Journal, our middle school and high school writing contests, and our many other activities devoted to “applying the power of language and literacy to pursue justice and equity for the students and teachers of New Jersey,” please see our website ( We are always interested in new members and people who want to join in the work of the organization. Feel free to reach out to Audrey at

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English


Welcome to New Board Member Susan Chenelle

Please welcome NJCTE’s newest board member, Susan Chenelle.

Susan Chenelle is Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction at University Academy Charter High School in Jersey City, New Jersey, where she taught English and journalism for several years. Her favorite days at work are those when she escapes her office and spends most of the day working and learning with teachers and students. She is the co-author of the Using Informational Text to Teach Literature series from Rowman & Littlefield with Audrey Fisch, with whom she has presented about informational text and cross-disciplinary collaboration at schools around New Jersey and conferences across the country. She earned her master’s degree in urban education from New Jersey City University, and she is now pursuing a doctoral degree at Montclair State University in Teacher Education and Teacher Development.

Susan was also honored by NJCTE in 2017 as Educator of the Year.

Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

Welcome to New Board Member Susan Chenelle

Notes from the 2017 NCTE Affiliate Breakfast

Yesterday, I wrote about attending the NCTE 2017 Annual Business Meeting. I also had the honor to represent the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English at the NCTE Affiliate Roundtable Breakfast.

Affiliate BreakfastNJCTE was among the many affiliates to be honored in a number of categories: Affiliate Membership Recruitment Award (for affiliates whose membership grew by 5% or more in 2016-2017); Affiliate Newsletter of Excellence Award (for NJCTE e-Focus, edited by Patricia Schall  and Susan Reese), Affiliate Journal of Excellence Award (for New Jersey English Journal, edited by Liz deBeer), and NCTE Affiliate Excellence Awards (for NCTE affiliates that meet high standards of performance).

Journal of Excellence Award
NJCTE Board Member Audrey Fisch accepts the 2017 NCTE Journal of Excellence Award on Behalf of New Jersey English Journal

We won the latter award for the 6th year!

We have done some good work together. But there is more work to be done!

NJCTE is beginning an examination of our website, which may need an update. Are you interesting in participating in this task? If yes, please reach out to NJCTE Board Member Sarah Gross (@thereadingzone), who is spearheading this initiative. We are also planning to submit an application to the NCTE Fund Teachers for the Dream Award, which is a grant intended to support initiatives aimed at recruiting English language arts teachers of color. Reach out to NJCTE Board Member Audrey Fisch (@audreyfisch) about helping with this initiative.

Finally, I want to add that the most inspiring and impressive element of the Affiliate Breakfast was hearing from the winners of the NCTE Student Affiliate of Excellence award winners. These are the amazing teachers and NCTE leaders of our future, and they were a phenomenal group of young people. NJCTE needs to develop a student affiliate (or more than one). Do we have a teacher educator who might help with this initiative? Reach out to NJCTE President Susan Reese (@mrsreese) if you are interested. Or reach out to us through the comments section of this blog or the NJCTE website. We welcome your interest!

Meanwhile, congratulations to all who have worked to make NJCTE a success. Let’s continue to build on that success!

Written by Audrey Fisch, Board Member, NJCTE, Professor of English, New Jersey City University, Jersey City, NJ

Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

Notes from the 2017 NCTE Affiliate Breakfast

Notes from the NCTE 2017 Annual Convention Business Meeting

This November, I had the honor to represent the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English at the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention in St. Louis. One of my responsibilities was to attend the Annual Business Meeting, and I want to take this opportunity to share with NJCTE members some of what was discussed.

Chadwick addresses NCTE Business Meeting
NCTE President Jocelyn A. Chadwick addresses the Annual Business Meeting

NCTE President Jocelyn Chadwick, who presided over the meeting, informed the group that there will be three new committees focused on major work for the organization. The first will focus on teacher agency:  how do we talk to administrators, deans, the community; how do we tell our story? NCTE hopes this committee will create more tools to help teachers communicate more effectively with different stakeholders about the work that we do. The second committee will focus on convention planning, so that we can think about what works well and what can we do better. This committee will work with Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick to continue improving our annual convention. Finally, the third committee will focus on policy and governance, with an emphasis on state and local needs and the ways in which the national organization can assist affiliates, who in turn can meet the needs of educators in our local communities.

NCTE Business Meeting Agenda


Next, NCTE Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick reviewed highlights of the year, including the NCTE new vision statement. Kirkpatrick indicated that membership is stabilizing after more than 12 years of decline, but that, while expenses have been reduced, the organization is still relying on financial reserves to balance the budget. Kirkpatrick announced that the Folger Library has signed on as substantial sponsor and financial partner and that the organization intends to forge more connections with publishers to come.

Kirkpatrick also announced the overhaul of The Council Chronicle, which will have an expanded base of writers. The next issue will feature a new piece by Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give, who delivered a stirring and challenging keynote address to an audience of more than 400 at NCTE 2017.

Kirkpatrick closed her address with an emphasis on some of the many new initiatives including a new and improved advocacy day, the introduction of lead ambassadors (two members in every section) who have already held local events in five states, a renewed and digitally-focused National Day on Writing – #WhyIWrite, policy engagement, and the new NCTE website.

The next NCTE Annual Convention will be held Nov 15-18 in Houston centered around the theme: Raising student voice starts by raising yours. Convention locations to follow include 2019 – Baltimore; 2020 – Denver; and 2021 – Louisville, KY.

Finally, the Business Meeting concluded with discussion, editing, and final passage of three resolutions. The resolutions are as follows (although please see NCTE for official and final wording):

#1: Resolution on Support of Undocumented Students and Teachers

Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English call for the immediate renewal of the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals program in support of the protection of all undocumented K-20 students and teachers, and endorse their rights to remain in the United States.

Be it further resolved that all students have the right to a high quality education, regardless of immigration status.

#2: Resolution on Professional Learning in the Teaching of Writing

Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English recommend ongoing, high quality professional learning in the teaching of writing for all teachers across all disciplines at each grade level, K-20.

Be it further resolved that NCTE actively encourage school districts, colleges, and universities in providing high quality professional learning to give teachers the necessary strategies and curricula to deliver effective writing instruction.

#3 Resolution on Amplifying the Voice of Literacy Leaders

Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English advocate for and support literacy teachers who embrace opportunities to amplify their voices and tell their stories.

Be it further resolved that NCTE urge literacy teachers to share their expertise with other education stakeholders and strive to wield more influence in shaping education policy and reform. As teachers and NCTE members we reaffirm an essential principle of our vision statement: “We must more precisely align this expertise to advance access, power, agency, affiliation, and impact for all learners” (NCTE Vision Statement, May 2017).

Written by Audrey Fisch, Board Member, NJCTE, Professor of English, New Jersey City University, Jersey City, NJ

Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

Notes from the NCTE 2017 Annual Convention Business Meeting